Friday, October 03, 2014

Define "definitive": A kinda sorta review of Turtle Power

The sub-title to the direct-to-DVD documentary Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles proves to be wildly inaccurate, although one has to actually watch the movie to find out just how inaccurate.

The "history" only really covers the first decade or so of the 30 years that have now passed since Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman published 3,000 copies of the first issue of their black and white comic book, and this coverage more or less climaxes with the surprise success of the first live-action movie in 1990. From there it winds down rather quickly, with the briefest of mentions of the second and third films, Peter Laird and Mirage's Kevin Eastman-less fourth volume of a TMNT comic, and a vague, tacked-on bit about the sale to Nickelodeon.

There's no mention at all of the Image Comics third volume of the comic (1996-1999) or the still ongoing IDW fifth volume (which saw Eastman returning to the property, now without Laird or any of his old Mirage studiomates). There's no mention of the 1997 Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation TV show, the 2003-launched second version of a television cartoon, the 2007 computer animated feature film, or the current, third version of a television cartoon show. Nor is there any mention of this summer's live-action reboot of the film franchise, the release of which apparently goosed this long-simmering project's completion and release (The exception to all this is in brief graphic packages that occasionally appear, and will use an image of, say, Michaelangelo from the 2007 film in the background, or a poster from the 2014 film).

This will likely come as a surprise given the sub-title, and a thunderous disappointment given how damn thorough the filmmakers were chronicling the early years of Eastman, Laird and Mirage, as well as the big three developments that changed the characters from the stars of an excellent, off-beat comic book to a pop culture franchise and merchandising juggernaut: The Playmates toyline, the original cartoon series and the first film.

Had they just tweaked that sub-title to better reflect the more narrow focus of the film, the rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the innocent goofing around of two artist friends to an at-times frighteningly omnipresent cultural force, then the film's rather sudden and limp, almost weightless ending wouldn't seem such a surprise or such a disappointment.

The film was quite obviously in-development and on-the-shelf for a very long-time—you can see the elapsed years on the faces of Eastman and Laird between their interviews for the film and a scene shot on-location of their joint appearance on the occasion of the franchises 30th anniversary—and while the filmmakers do an admirable job chronicling the rise of the Turtles' star (and that of their creators), they skip almost entirely its fall and later, littler rises and falls. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have never really gone away, not from any of the media they've dominated—comics, television animation, film—but they were never as big as they were in the early 90s.

Additionally, there was apparently a lot of behind the scenes drama, but either because Eastman and Laird didn't want to talk about it, or the filmmakers didn't have the time, inclination or resources to follow through with it, it seems like an awful lot of story is left untold, present but unexplained.

Eastman and Laird have nothing but nice things to say about one another on camera, but they did break up, with Eastman selling his portion to Laird at one point, and they're never interviewed together for the film.

Whatever caused the split, it is merely mentioned in passing, with Laird noting that they were growing apart, and with a huge swathe of the country's geography between them (they were quite literally working side-by-side at the outset), it became difficult to continue their partnership.
Laird also mentions—somewhat sadly, even regretfully—that his 2001 return to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, published bi-monthly through Mirage with Laird working on every issue with original Mirage studiomates Jim Lawson, Eric Talbot, Michael Dooney and others, didn't quite capture the same spirit or magic that the original run with Eastman did, something he says he kept hearing from fans (For the record, I just read much of that volume of comics in one big gulp, and those were actually some pretty great comics, and I hope to put together a post on TMNT Vol. 4 sometime soon).

And as for the sale of the property to Nickelodeon—which lead to the current IDW comics line (with Eastman rather heavily contributing to TMNT comics for the first time in years), the current cartoon series and the Michael Bay-produced, Megan Fox-starring feature film—there's only a vague, rather oblique mention (In fact, I'm not entirely sure the word "Nickelodeon" even appears in the film).

Nevertheless, what the film does do, it does rather well.

The origins of the comic book will likely be familiar to most fans of the comics. After the much younger Eastman, who discovered a black-and-white, newsprint anthology comic someone left on a bus got in touch with the guy who was putting it together, Peter Laird, the two formed their Mirage Studios (so named because there wasn't really anything there).

One night Eastman draws a turtle standing upright with nunchucks strapped to its forearm and wearing a bandana-style mask. Laird responds by drawing his own version of the same character.

Eventually, they draw four turtles in masks with different weapons, under the words "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"...
...and the pair decide they need to tell the story of where these characters came from. Pouring everything they liked about comics—but, at that point, a whole lot of Frank Miller and Jack Kirby and a dollop of Dave Sim's Cerebus*—into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1.

As a fan of the comics first and foremost, this was obviously my favorite part of the film, and it was great to see Mirage Studios guys Jim Lawson, Steve Lavigne, Ryan Brown and Michael Dooney interviewed. Eric Talbot appears, being named by Laird (I believe) while there's a shot of him drawing a ninja turtle over his shoulder, but he doesn't have any lines.

Later in the film, Ross Campbell and Mark Bode are both interviewed too, but only as fans and artists; it's not mentioned that Campbell has worked on bits and pieces of Volume 5 (although maybe he hadn't when they interviewed him...? Or maybe that was just someone with the same name as the comic book artist "Ross Campbell"...?) or that Bode did a couple of issues of the original volume (#18, #32 and one-shot Times Pipeline).

Eastman offers a bit of insight about what made the original comics he and Laird produced so special, noting that they had decided early on that every single page would have at least a little bit of both of them on it somewhere, in the writing, penciling, inking, toning, whatever, so that one couldn't tell where one of them left off and the other began (It's strange; I can spot an all-Eastman or all-Laird image easily now, but in those first handful of issues especially, when they're styles were still forming, it is fairly impossible to pull out who did what on what panel).
Eastman noted that April was based on a girl who used to date, that Casey Jones was based on Kurt Russell from Big Trouble In Little China (the vigilante inspired to fight crime by crime movies and bad television named Casey Jones whose weapon of choice was a baseball bat was Eastman; the hockey mask and golf bag full of sporting equipment with which to bludgeon people was Laird), and the reason they killed off The Shredder in the very first issue was that there wasn't supposed to be any more issues. The original plan was to just make the one comic, because they wanted to make a comic, and that's what they had come up with.

That their weird, violent little comic became the big deal it eventually would, that it would go mainstream at all, does rather boggle the mind, despite the goofy appeal of that almost-magical four-word title: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That it did owes a lot to licensing guy Mark Freedman, who is present in the documentary almost as much as Eastman and Laird are.
He shops the property around, eventually finding interest in a toyline at Playmates and, this being the late '80s, toy lines were sold not with commercials so much as animated television shows that functioned as commercials, and so animation producer Fred Wolf (also interviewed extensively) put together the first five episodes and y, was, really, going to be it. Playmates told Eastman and Laird they could expect a three-year lifespan for the toyline if it was successful, and the cartoon people made a five-episode miniseries.

Obviously, both were wildly popular, and lasted far longer than that.

The toy stuff was particularly interesting for the roads not traveled (and, as it reached its waning years, the weird-ass roads it did travel), and how it changed and informed (mutated?) the original characters who, in the comics, were indistinguishable from one another. Now they had to have different-colored masks and initials on their belts (otherwise, you could just buy one or two turtle and some accessories). The cartoon development stuff, conducted mostly with Fred Wolf and writer David Wise, likewise for how it moved the characters and concept.

Everyone realized rather early on that it was a little too adult in its comic form—the logo for the first issue had a blood-soaked katana in it, after all—and they really seemed to glom on to certain aspects of the franchise, like the fact that the characters dwelled in a sewer (which informed the aesthetic of all their vehicles and such-like) or that they were teenagers (that's where their love of pizza came from, Wise said, as he tried to think about what it was that teenagers did; he also seems to be the primary developer of Michaelangelo's extra-comics personality, as he said he tried to make Michaelangelo the character who most embodied the "teenage" part of their name**).

Turtle Power stages a reunion of the vocal cast of the original cartoon, which was...weird, really, seeing those familiar voices coming out of the faces of middle-aged human adults (Particularly hearing Donatello's voice cominng out of Barry Gordon; Gordon didn't really do anything to his voice to play the turtle; he just talked like himself. I remember being disconcerted by this even as a child, since his was also the voice of the Quick Bunny in my youth). Also of interest? Townsend Coleman based Michaelangelo's voice on that of Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Pat Fraley played Krang as his impersonation of a Jewish mother because it amused him to do so.

The section on the 1990 film is even more extensive still, and, while it's been a while since I've seen it, and the film certainly made me want to see it again, it was fairly fascinating to hear just how technically difficult it was to produce (in the days before computers, there were stuntmen in rubber suits, and radio-controlled, robot/animatronic heads on the turtle actors) and how risky a film it was—or at least how risky it was presented as by the producers, directors and others involved, perhaps to add drama to the documentary.

After that, the film begins its petering-out phase, with brief mentions of the second and third films, a surprisingly extensive segment the "Coming Out Of Their Shells" live tour in which the Turtles held rock concerts (In the documentary's biggest surprise, The State's Michael Ian Black and Robert Ben Garant*** are interviewed about their involvement in that), a montage of the range of "Turtle Mania" and a quick, final check-in with Eastman and Laird, including their previously mentioned joint appearance.

It's far from perfect—What film with the words Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in it has been?—but there is a lot of interest in it, and it likely goes down smoother when you know what to expect.

I think what I found most compelling about the film is how big the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got, how fast they got there and how much of that success their creators were able to enjoy in their life time. And the fact that Eastman and Laird didn't seem to be trying for any of that success makes it all the more compelling. Which isn't to say that they weren't smart and savvy businessmen, or that they didn't work their asses off, but, at the start, they didn't sit around thinking of how they were going to come up with a blockbuster multi-media franchise.

They were just writing and drawing the comic book they wanted to write and draw and, when they saw that it was successful enough that they could earn a living just writing and drawing a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, they kept doing it. Everything else was just so much gravy-so, so, sooooooo much gravy. This seems to be the opposite of how so much of the comics industry and so many aspiring comics creators approach comics today wherein concept after concept and title after title reads like a spec script for a Hollywood film, getting storyboarded and test-marketed as a comic book to the direct market.

Most of those fail, of course, but I've lost count of how many I've seen in the last 10 years or so. The strange set of right place, right time circumstances that lead to the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and their re-creation as a family friendly franchise, isn't really something anyone could set out to try and repeat. But if there's a lesson for aspiring comics creators to be gleaned from this film, it would appear to be that you write and draw what you want to write and draw because it's what you want to do, and if it turns into something more, count yourself lucky or blessed.

*Sim and Cerebus are mentioned by name, and Sim appears via photograph an Cerebus via a drawing, but Sim is not interviewed or anything. There's no discussion of Eastman and Laird's collaboration with him on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #8, the Cerebus team-up issue that introduced Renet and Savanti Romero, either.
It's a huge, and hugely unexpected success.

**He also claims responsibility for the catch phrase "Cowabunga!" I don't recall seeing it in any of the earliest comics, so I'm not going to argue. There's a scene in those first five episodes where a building floods, and Michaelangelo rides a desk like a surfboard. Wise said he got the line from Snoopy in Peanuts.

***Both have gone on to do bigger stuff they are both better known for, and I know from recent conversations with twentysomethings that there are a lot of people who don't know what the hell The State is, but they will always be "Two of the guys from The State" to me, dammit.

1 comment:

Bram said...

How come a 40-something knows The State and the kids these days don't?


"It ain't your concern."